French Victorian Feminist Hubertine Auclert

French Victorian Feminist Hubertine Auclert
A Young Hubertine Auclert, Courtesy of Wikipedia

French Victorian feminist Hubertine Auclert was born to a middle-class family on 10 April 1848. At age 13, when her father died, she was sent to a Roman Catholic convent. She initially intended to become a nun, but she left the convent permanently after being rejected because of her vivacious personality. She then went to Paris, and shortly thereafter, Napoleon III was ousted and the Third Republic established. These changes encouraged activism by women, and women began to demand changes and greater rights. Inspired by others, Auclert then became involved in securing rights for women and because of her time spent in the convent, she became a militant anti-cleric.

The French feminist movement supported changing laws, but Auclert wanted more than just changes to the laws. For example, she supported women’s suffrage and founded the Société le droit des femmes (The Rights of Women) in 1876, which was changed to the Société le suffrage des femmes (Women’s Suffrage Society) in 1883. Despite great opposition, Auclert held meetings and distributed petitions in Paris and throughout many French provinces to allow for women’s suffrage

The French Suffragette, Public Domain

In July and August of 1878, the “International Congress on Women’s Rights” was held in Paris. It was a historic event attended by many representatives, and the committee that established it was from six different countries. During the event, seven resolutions were passed, but, unfortunately, the subject of women’s suffrage was completely avoided as the committee had decided beforehand that suffrage was too controversial a topic. When Auclert learned suffrage would be avoided, she was incensed and wrote a speech demanding that French women be given the right to vote. It was not presented but was later published.

Alexandre Dumas, a nineteenth-century French writer whose works have been translated into nearly 100 languages, had something to say about the subject of women’s suffrage and Auclert. He once described her as “an eccentric person, rather desirous of creating a sensation about her name than convinced of the justice of her argument.” One historian pointed out that Dumas did not consider “the argument in favour of female suffrage as perfectly serious,” and noted of Dumas:

[H]e maintains that there is no serious reason for opposing the admission of our mothers and wives to be electors like ourselves, provided they become eligible.”

Change was not happening fast enough for the feminist Auclert. In 1880, she was still fighting the French government requesting that women be allowed to vote. She became upset enough over the issue that she refused to pay taxes and she urged other women not to pay taxes too. Because of her stance, her furniture was seized, and she responded by protesting.

On 13 February 1881, Auclert published the first copy of her bi-monthly French feminist newspaper titled La Citoyenne. In La Citoyenne, she championed a variety of causes affecting women and lobbied for changes to the Napoleonic Code. Auclert believed that women should be equal to men in the political arena, and, so, she began to demand that women be allowed to run for office.

Auclert had been a longtime supporter for divorce, and, in 1884, the French government finally legalized it. However, Auclert immediately denounced the new law because it was completely biased against women as it still did not allow women who were married to keep the wages they earned. Auclert then proposed a radical idea. She suggested that couples sign a marriage contract and that in it they have a clause allowing couples to keep their property separate.

One visitor to see Auclert in 1885 expected to visit with a severe-looking, portly, and white-haired woman. Instead the visitor was surprised. It seems that Auclert was anything but portly or white-haired as she was described as being 35 but looking 25. In addition, the visitor noted of Auclert:

“[She had a] rosy, black-eyed French face, black hair, becomingly dressed, not parted on the side, called a l’Anglaise in the back. Her net little figure becoming asserted itself in a dark blue woolen gown, which by no means disdained present fashions.”

Caricature of Hubertine Auclert and Her Fight for Women’s Rights, Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France

In 1888, Auclert, who had opposed marriage, gave up her opposition to it and married a long-time supporter who was named Antonin Lévrier. Lévrier was a lawyer and justice of the peace. Many comments were made about her marriage to Lévrier, including the following by one newspaper:

“Considerable surprise has been expressed owing to the intention of Mddle. Hubertine Auclert, the great female champion of the ‘rights’ of her sex, to get married, and to walk no longer ‘in maiden meditation, fancy free.’ For ten years this lady has been fighting for Women’s Rights.”

Auclert kept her newspaper La Citoyenne going until 1891, but then she ran out of money and closed it. Around this time, Lévrier and Auclert also moved to Algeria because Lévrier had accepted a judicial appointment. While in Algeria, Auclert studied, recorded, and wrote about the daily lives of Arab women.

When Lévrier died in 1892, Auclert returned to Paris and rebuilt her newspaper and her Suffrage des femmes, which remained a small group. At this time, the term “feminism” that had been first coined by Charles Fourier and introduced by Auclert into the English language, was now taking on a large-scale meaning in that it became more commonly known as the “feminist movement.” 

Hubertine Auclert in 1910, Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France

Auclert was always on the lookout for women’s equality. One controversy that erupted over women and equality involved the guillotine. It had long been a French policy not to inflict capital punishment on women, and French suffragists began to demand that women be allowed the right to be guillotined when sentenced to death. Auclert supported this stance and wrote, “Both sexes must be equal before the ballot box — and before the guillotine.”

Another story about how Auclert sought equality and how she attempted to “preach her gospel” was reported in 1901:

“The new French postage stamp represents a young woman resting her hand on a tablet which bears the words, ‘The right of man.’ … Auclert has caused to be made a quantity of blue stamps which show a young man resting his hand on a tablet with the words, ‘The rights of women.’ She recommends persons who believe in equal rights to affix one of these stamps to each letter, side by side with the official stamp of the Government.”

During Auclert’s lifetime, she never gave up lobbying or fighting for women’s equality. In 1908, during a municipal election, she smashed a ballot box and defied authorities by presenting herself as a candidate for the legislative assembly. Her fight for women and equality rights did not end until she died on 4 August 1914. Auclert was interred at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris where the sculpture on her tomb commemorates the “Suffrage des Femmes.”

References:

  • —, in Aberdeen Evening Express, 28 September 1888
  • “A Remarkable Controversy,” in Belfast News-Letter,  4 August 1913
  • History of Woman Suffrage, Volume 3, 1886
  • Robinson, Harriet Jane, Massachusetts in the Woman Suffrage Movement, 1883
  • Stanton, Theodore, The Woman Question in Europe, 1884
  • The Academy, Volume 18, 1880
  • “The Rights of Man and Woman,” in St. James’s Gazette, 20 November 1901

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